The Iraq/ISIS Debate: Beware the Ghosts of Saigon and Karbala

July 10, 2014 Topic: SecurityHistory Region: Iraq

The Iraq/ISIS Debate: Beware the Ghosts of Saigon and Karbala

When debating Iraq, the fall of Saigon is as important as the history of Karbala.


Given this new assistance, the United States is right to demand more political inclusivity from Maliki, but this is easier said than done: Iraqi politics is fraught with complexity. Placed in a regional context, we are looking at the need for long-term, multilateral diplomatic focus. This is after all, as much China’s problem as it is Europe’s or America’s.

To stop at least some of the bleeding, the famed Sahwa movement will have to be revived. This is impossible in the short term. Remnants of the movement are scattered throughout Iraq, notably in Ramadi and parts of Salahaddin, while other Sahwa are seen as Maliki stooges. Closer to Baghdad however, where the movement was typically less trusted by Maliki (and more targeted by the ISF), the situation is grave.


In the old “triangle of death” south of the capital, sectarian relations are limp and the Sahwa are decimated. The situation is equally grim in the other “belts” around Baghdad, some of which could threaten the airport if they fell to insurgent control. Here lie men loathe to fight for Maliki, who fear both the IS and Shia militias. Despite this, there has been a government effort to revive the movement. By rallying allies around Iraq’s atrophied political process, the United States could lay the ground for a revived Sahwa of sorts, perhaps as part of a deal to devolve more power to provinces, as Michael Rubin has suggested.

The holistic approach

Roger Williams served as an advisor to the Iraqi army in Ramadi in 2006, as well as working on the Human Terrain System project, mapping Iraqi tribal structures and key local leaders in Iraq. He feels that renewed U.S. effort in Iraq would need a strong political dimension with strong U.S. leverage:

The Shia militia and the Sahwa movement should be treated for what they are which is a national guard of sorts. They should all be rolled up under the ISF and paid accordingly. What I would recommend is to have a tiered pay structure that pays the National Guard one amount and pays the Army a larger amount. That way some of the young men could make more money guarding the nation than guarding their neighborhood or city. The US government should demand it as a part of the assistance package. The US military has many soldiers who have worked with the Sunni Sahwa movement and others that have worked with the Shia. The DoD should put that knowledge to work and build the Special Operations forces packages accordingly.

Maj. Mike Few, who served in one of the most violent small towns in the troubled province of Diyala during the “surge” period, is more skeptical of potential progress:

Is it possible for the Maliki govt. to successfully prosecute a pacification campaign and win back territory? Yes, that's possible, but it would only be a half-measure. In these types of conflicts, the rebelling force does not need to maintain land. Rather, they need to simply survive. Actually, we could see a deliberate tactical withdrawal from some cities if the Maliki govt. begins bombing with drones and other forms of airpower. Ultimately, I feel that Iraq will break apart. I do not know if that's a bad thing or not. At this point, for all parties involved, a divorce might be necessary in order to save the children.

The ghosts of Karbala

Obama would do well to recall the 1991 uprising of the Kurds and Shia following the first Gulf War, and if he doesn’t remember the details, the victims of Saddam’s crackdown most certainly do. They were desperate for U.S. help.

Today, U.S. planes are once again in Iraqi airspace as the Shia (and many Sunnis) feel existentially threatened by ISIS. In 1991, the Ba’athists threatened dissenters of all sects and Republican Guard tanks were apparently emblazoned with the words “no more Shia after today.”

Abiding by international law and wary of regime change, the Coalition did not take immediate action in the south, eventually imposing a no-fly zone and effectively rescuing the Kurds. A major concern was Iranian influence if Saddam fell. Following the absence of U.S. support for the rebels, the next twelve years saw U.S. fears of Iranian influence realized, although this did not become fully apparent until after 2003. In the ‘90s, there was a surge in support for Iranian-backed underground movements in Iraq, movements that hold much sway over Iraqi politics today.

Evidently, Iran and Russia have not waited around to demonstrate support for Iraq in the current crisis. In that respect, the realization that Iraq and the United States need each other more than they previously realized could be a good thing: America once again has more leverage, quite possibly enough to use against Maliki, if that is what Obama decides.

But as the president mulls what to do, that leverage is decreasing, and the influence of Russia and Iran is becoming stronger. Once again, the legacy of these wars is the emboldening of America’s foes, but if the Obama administration can remain “laser focused” as Kerry remarked, there is still a vital role for the United States. For Iraqis, that might have to be something more visible than advisers, but whatever happens, there is no silver bullet for ISIS.


Robert Tollast is a consultant at Noorbridge, a Helsinki based consultancy with staff in London and Nasiriyah, Iraq. He has written extensively on security, politics and economic issues in Iraq for various publications, and is currently researching a modern history of Iraq with support from The Middle East Forum. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of the Department of Defense or any other entity of the US Government.